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Activists Seek to Influence Philly Judgeships in Primary

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Activists Seek to Influence Philly Judgeships in Primary

It used to be unheard of for Philadelphia judges to reject a negotiated sentence in resentencing of prisoners convicted of crimes as juveniles until Larry Krasner assumed office last year and started delivering on a promise to minimize incarceration. In response, several Philadelphia judges have rejected his attempts to keep people out of prison or release them earlier. Some judges reportedly declined to consider a Krasner initiative to seek shorter probation sentences, The Atlantic reports. After watching these developments with dismay, Rick Krajewski of a leftist political group called Reclaim Philadelphia convened 30 activists in January at the offices of a prisoner-advocacy organization to spearhead a rare grassroots campaign for a typically sleepy judicial race.

This meeting started a coalition of organizations that collectively are raising public awareness about the city’s primary election on Tuesday and the candidates running for seven open judicial seats. Some are campaigning for candidates who share their progressive values. The coalition includes anti-incarceration advocates and activists for racial equity. Its platform includes eliminating cash bail, increasing sentences to rehabilitation-focused programs rather than prison, barring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from courts, and decriminalizing sex work and drug use.

Organizers want to promote a more diverse judiciary that understands where defendants come from. “A big piece is, one, how are you treating the people who come before you? Are you humanizing them?” says Devren Washington of Black Lives Matter Philadelphia.  A prosecutor has tremendous sway when, for example, suggesting bail, negotiating plea agreements, and recommending sanctions for parole and probation violations. But judges and magistrates have the final say—and their decisions have been thrown into relief in jurisdictions that have elected reformist prosecutors. In Houston, Chicago, Brooklyn, and other left-leaning cities, prosecutors have been winning races on platforms to end mass incarceration. “What we are seeing is that the judges are deciding to take it upon themselves to be the obstacle for a progressive district attorney,” says Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, a former juvenile lifer now at Amistad Law Project, a prisoner-rights advocacy organization.

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